Talking to a restaurant worker--Part I

August 5, 2002

Thailand is simply chock-full of watering holes and restaurants that fit any budget and most any food craving. I often wonder how these establishments manage to stay in business with all of the competition out there but there is no shortage of business owners thinking they can make a buck or two by opening up yet another drinking and dining establishment. It was at such a place that I recently met a 23-year-old woman I’ll call Nok. She has been working as a cook and bartender at a very small restaurant offering basic English food in Chiang Mai for the last three months.

She speaks English almost fluently and is self-taught. Her warm personality, smiling face and social nature makes her a natural at tending bar. She also enjoys helping some customers learn Thai when the restaurant is not too busy. It doesn’t seem too bad a job spending the day chatting with friendly customers, getting a free drink or two now and again and cooking up some food but nothing could be further050802k1.jpg from the truth. I asked Nok about her work schedule and she explained, “I start work around 9 or 10 a.m. everyday and close the restaurant between 2 and 3 a.m. I do not have any days off.”

What does Nok receive in return for the 105 hours per week that she works? “I am paid 4,000 baht (US$95) a month plus I’m given a room above the restaurant to sleep in. I also get tips from the customers. I usually get around 50 baht (US$1.20) a day in tips but on a good day it can be up to 200.” Averaging out her tips to 120 baht a day would mean she could earn an additional 3,600-3,720 baht per month if customers are generous. When this is added to her base salary, it means Nok can make 7,600-7,720 baht per month, or approximately 10.45 baht (US$0.25) per hour.

What does her daily schedule look like? “I get up, take a shower, get dressed, and I never eat breakfast. Next I open the business. After noon I eat, then I go upstairs and shower again. Then I work until the place050802k2.jpg closes. I have some snacks in the afternoon. After I close, I shower and go to sleep.” When asked about how she spends her money, she explained, “I spend 10 baht a day for noodles at lunch. I buy a carton of milk for 10-13 baht and spend about 20 baht on snacks. And I buy cigarettes for 35-45 baht a pack. I like to buy clothes sometimes, too. And I send my grandmother 1,000 baht a month.”

When asked what her most treasured possession is, she responded, “My clothes. If I have money, it is the first thing I will buy. Sometimes if I have something beautiful, I keep it folded and don’t even wear it.” She is likely to spend 79 baht (US$1.88) on a new shirt.

She has been taking care of herself since the age of 17 when her mother died of cancer at the age of 32. Nok completed one year of high school before beginning work as a nurse’s assistant in a hospital for 3,000 baht a month, next as a receptionist for 4,500 baht per month and later as a bartender. She met her050802k3.jpg estranged father for the first time the year her mother died but he also died shortly thereafter. She explained, “My parents both had cancer. I guess it runs in the family. I hope I don’t get it, too!”

“I have a step-sister but my family is my grandmother. She lives 95 kilometres away from here and I only get to see her about once a year. Once my grandmother dies, there is no way I am going back to my town,” Nok explained, citing a greedy aunt who used the money Nok had once entrusted her with to buy lottery tickets as the reason she would not consider going home otherwise. “I used to have some money saved but I don’t anymore. I put a deposit on a motorbike but it got repossessed because after my aunt spent my money, I could not pay for it anymore,” she stated.

When asked what she would do if hypothetically given 5,000 baht (US$119) she said, “I would keep it for when I don’t have a job and use it until I found a new one. But I also want a motorbike. Then I can come and go easily and rent a room outside of the city because the rooms are much cheaper out of town.”

To find out what Nok has to say about dating, foreigners in Thailand, her plans for the future and more, tune in next week.

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